You may have heard the news last month about a series of disturbing safety lapses at several of the country’s most highly secure research labs. These top-notch labs dangerously mishandled any number of biohazards, including the smallpox virus, the avian flu, and anthrax.
The LA Times reported, “the problems included storing anthrax in unlocked refrigerators, transferring dangerous materials in Ziploc bags, and using expired disinfectants.” And with each passing day, we seem to hear about another mind-boggling safety breach.
What surprises me most about these dangerous breaches is not that they happened–but that they didn’t happened sooner.
You see, it all began after 9-11…
As you’ll recall, not long after those devastating attacks, some prominent politicians and journalists received a few letters contaminated with anthrax. A few people became ill.
Then, politicians and journalists did what they do best. They promoted and eventually enacted new “bioterror” programs to protect themselves–I mean, to protect “us”–against bioterrorism.
Plus, they built new facilities–like the planned Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Kansas that I told you about last year.
These capital building funds are far more difficult to come by than operational expenditures for new government “programs.” It shows you the depth of the government’s zeal for the war against bioterrorism that they so willingly foot the bill for these new, costly research labs.
Plus, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO)–the investigative arm of Congress–there were 415 labs registered in 2004 to work with dangerous biohazards such as anthrax. But by 2010, that number more than tripled to 1,495.
This meant many more labs across the country began to handle these dangerous agents…with very little oversight. So it’s no surprise to me to learn of these breaches.
Of course, these new government research labs and bioterror programs cost taxpayers billions of dollars. And government bureaucrats used the new funding to feather their own beds.
Plus, major universities wanted in on the action. They scrambled to compete for the opportunity to research infections as part of the government’s new war on bioterror. But they didn’t have many really new insights to offer. They just repackaged their existing programs so they could cash in on the new government payroll.
This kind of creative repackaging happened before, in the 1970s. At that time, cancer became labeled as public enemy No. 1. So universities reorganized what they were already doing to compete for billions in new funding for cancer research.
But after decades of research and no cure for cancer in sight, they needed a new gravy train. And, sadly, the events of September 11, 2001 gave them one. Once again, they slapped a new label on their existing projects to compete for all the new “bioterror” funding.
As a senior staff member at one prominent Philadelphia medical school and an alumnus of another, I watched all this creative repackaging with amazement. They carefully re-crafted their old programs and proposals to qualify for federal funding. And the clueless politicians and incompetent federal bureaucrats actually bought a lot of these hollow pitches.
The government and media continued to terrorize the public with exaggerated fears of bioterrorism. But the bureaucrats never broke a sweat. And the academic researchers never had a hair out of place, as they secured ever more funding to keep doing what they were already doing. Except now, it was under the new guise of research on “bioterror.”
By the way…do you remember who sent the letters contaminated with anthrax in 2001, which prompted this expensive war on “bioterror?”
Was it Osama bin Laden? Al-Qaeda? Hamas? The Axis of Evil in Iraq, Iran, Libya, or North Korea? Or even the old “Evil Empire”–the USSR (now Russia)?
None of the above!
Suspicion fell on two U.S. government scientists with access to the bacterium. After all, back then not just anyone had easy access to anthrax. (Although with triple the biohazard labs across the country, access to this dangerous agent has clearly become much easier in recent years. And the mishaps have increased too.)
Back then, theories abounded about why the scientists sent the letters. Maybe they felt disgruntled because they had not been adequately promoted in the arcane, byzantine government personnel system. Or maybe they were trying to scare Congress into providing more funding for their research. (That certainly worked.)
One of the suspects was clearly mentally ill and ended up committing suicide.
So let me ask you this…
Where is the one place a lunatic like that can go to work and have a successful career with generous, life-long benefits? Where can he be trusted to handle deadly public health hazards, and never be questioned, until there is an unprecedented national catastrophe?
Answer: The U.S. government.
And believe me, that scientist was far from the only lunatic I saw during a dozen years in government service.
1. “How to fix U.S. biosecurity leaks? Close some labs,” Reuters 7/14/2014